Friday, May 28, 2010

Blog Post 4: What These Toys are Really Telling Boys

When people buy toys for their children they rarely think about the implications the toys have on the development of their child’s outlook on life. Most people see toys as simply a means to an end; the toys will make the children happy and keep them occupied. This is true to an extent; however toys play a vital yet often overlooked role in the development of gender identity. This gender identity can stay with an individual throughout their entire life, causing that individual to identify with the ideals projected through advertisements targeting that particular gender identity. For girls the ideal identity projected through advertising and toys is one of constructed femininity that requires the girl to try and become unreasonably thin or pretty; for boys the ideal identity of constructed masculinity is one of strength, decisiveness, and competitiveness that is often represented through violence. Toys marketed towards boys tend to contain these features of constructed masculinity and serve to essentially indoctrinate young boys into a lifestyle that fits the needs of corporations geared to market products at this construction throughout the rest of the man’s life.

Toys have changed a lot in my lifetime. I remember walking through the aisles of Toys ‘R Us as a child in a state of awe, unable to comprehend the sheer quantity and variety of action figures and other playthings lining the shelves. At the age of 8 I was making $5 every two weeks for doing chores; this worked out quite well for me then because most action figures cost $4.99. Sure, more expensive toys such as Lego, Knex, water guns, Nerf guns, and Nerf footballs and bats existed, but those were usually given to me as gifts for Christmas or my birthday.

The last time I stepped into a Toys ‘R Us was over a year ago; what I saw upset me. The shelves that once held a diverse selection of action figures, Legos, Knex, and Nerf products had been replaced by fairly expensive intellectual property themed action figures. The generic themed action figures were replaced by “movie replica” Transformers or “video game replica” Halo toys. Even the Star Wars toys, which were once the most reasonably priced, had been replaced by crossover “Star Wars Transformers.” I couldn’t find a single action figure for less than $10. I left depressed and haven’t returned to this day. Today I opt to use for all of my shopping because I find it to be much more cost-efficient.

For the sake of this assignment, let’s say I’m shopping for a 10 year old boy named Paul K. Rugman. Paul is a normal 10 year old white boy from an upper middle class family. In this scenario Paul makes slightly more money for doing his chores than I did as a child: $10 every two weeks. I have a 13 year old brother, so I have recently seen the types of toys marketed at this demographic. Let’s see the types of toys that an average 10 year old white boy like Paul would want to buy.

The first toy someone like Paul would like is the Nerf N-Strike Vulcan EBF-25 assault rifle. When I was a child my friends and I loved shooting each other with Nerf guns, as do my brother, his friends, and our cousins. Paul, being an average boy, would most likely be into the same types of things. This gun is huge and shoots a lot of darts very fast. The box features a boy aged around 10-14 shooting the gun with a look of bloodlust on his face. Boys who play with Nerf guns tend to fight each other with their guns, enacting some sort violent role play in which nobody is actually harmed. Nerf’s other line of non-gun toys are all sports related; Nerf projects athleticism, competitiveness, strength, and violence to young boys. With a manufacturers recommended age of 8-12 years old, they are clearly marketing this toy to someone like Paul. Unfortunately, the gun is listed at $49.99 MSRP, and while Amazon has it for $41.70 Paul would still have to wait at least 8 weeks to afford this toy.

My brother and his friends all love Lego Bionicle, so it’s probably safe to assume Paul would be into them as well. This particular Bionicle is named “Mata Nui”; Bionicle’s naming scheme is far too complicated for me as there are hundreds of them and they all have names like this, but my brother and all of his friends have them memorized, which seems to reflect their popularity more than anything. Mata Nui is a yellow robot-humanoid warrior with some sort of bladed shield on his left arm and a spiked mace on his right. On the box he stands triumphantly perched on a rock in front of a giant sun. The premise of these toys, as far as I understand, revolves around a violent conflict between certain factions of Bionicles. Again, these toys project violence as ideal and glorified to children between the recommended ages of 7-16. Mata Nui costs $20.79 on Amazon; toys sure have become expensive.

The third toy I picked for Paul is the Transformer Bumblebee. Transformers have wide appeal to young boys because they combine cars, robots, violence, and tinkering. Bumblebee is a yellow 2008 Camaro that transforms into a robot warrior. The premise here is once again a violent struggle between robot factions, again projecting an idealized form of violence to young children. The fact that the kid has to tinker with the toy to “transform” it between car and robot appeals to a boy’s assumed ability and interest in how things work. I am unaware of any girl toys that feature controlled transformation, so this trait could be possibly marketed exclusively to boys. Bumblebee costs $29.99 on Amazon with a recommended age of 5-12 years.

Paul probably needs a villain action figure to go with these others, so I picked out the World of Warcraft Ghoul named Rottingham to fight his heroes. Rottingham is a fairly grotesque undead corpse with bloody extremities, giant teeth, and exposed bones. He is, quite literally, a monster. This appeals to the assumed typical boyhood fantasy of good violently vanquishing evil, as it is hard for a child to identify with a bloody evil corpse. The MSRP for Rottingham is $23.99, but Amazon has it for $8.99. One thing about this that I thought was curious was the differences in recommended age; the manufacturer recommends ages 14 and up, while Amazon recommends ages 5 and up. It’s almost as if the manufacturer realizes that idealizing violence should be left for older, possibly more mature children, but then Amazon lowers the age to sell more.

The final toy I’m choosing for Paul is a Star Wars Chewbacca action figure. There’s a fairly large possibility that a 10 year old boy doesn’t know who Chewbacca is or even what Star Wars is, and while Star Wars glorifies violence and reinforces gender roles, I feel it played a large enough role in American film culture that Paul could benefit from knowing about it. Plus, Chewy is cheap: only $6.75. This is still more than the $4.99 I paid for mine 10 years ago, but at least it’s affordable. Chewbacca is a Wookie, a hairy humanoid incapable of human speech that carries a crossbow. In the films he follows Han Solo because Han Solo saved his life at one point; Wookie’s have something called a “life-debt” in which they must protect someone who saved their lives for the remainder of it. This reflects the classical imagery of honor and chivalry which has been associated with masculinity since the Middle Ages.

As mindless and fun these toys may seem to Paul, he is incapable of understanding the heteronormative depiction of masculinity these toys are planting within his own self identity. These toys are just another part of cultural hegemony. James Lull defines hegemony as “the power or dominance that one social group holds over others… hegemony is more than social power itself; it is a method for gaining and maintaining power.” (Lull 61) The power being exerted over boys in this situation is the power of gendered identity. Young boys are impressionable. By planting these ideas of violence, competition, and honor in the minds of young boys, corporations are able to appeal to these feelings later on in life through other advertisements. This all exists to make the child a lifetime consumer of products marketed towards this gender identity.

These toys all display violence as something that can be good, especially through competition or the just cause of war. In discussing the social construction of violence and masculinity, Jackson Katz writes: “For working-class males, who have less access to more abstract forms of masculinity-validating power (economic power, workplace authority), the physical body and its potential for violence provide a concrete means of achieving and asserting “manhood.” (Katz 351) If these toys all project the idea that violence is not only acceptable but expected, then Katz argues that later in life the boys who play with these toys will relate to marketing strategies that appeal to a man’s inherent sense of violence. This violence is not actually inherent; it is placed in the minds of children through depictions of violence and toys such as the ones listed above.

In actuality, Paul should have nothing in common with any of these toys.  Guns clearly aren't toys, yet Paul would probably want the Nerf gun to role play violence with his friends and their guns.  Paul isn't a robot, so Bumblebee and Mata Nui should not be able to relate to them.  Chewbacca is a hairy creature and Rottingham is a zombie.  None of these toys resemble anything Paul could possibly look like.  Yet he still would want them because advertisers tell him he wants them.  And even if his parents didn't let him watch television, his friends in school would tell him that he wants them.  In today's climate it seems that gender identities may be unavoidable.

Works Cited

Katz, Jackson. "Advertising and the Construction of Violent White Masculinity." Gender, Race and Class in Media: a Text-reader. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2003. 349-58. Print.

Lull, James. "Hegemony." Gender, Race and Class in Media: a Text-reader. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2003. 61-66. Print.